Editorial from The Jerusalem Post on November 26, 1998.


There was no lack of irony on Tuesday when the Attorney-General's Office announced its intention to indict senior personnel of the Arutz 7 pirate radio station for violating the law against illegal broadcasts. The fact that the action is being taken while a Likud government is undertaking a revolution in communications deregulation, and while the settlers' movement is going through the wrenching process of absorbing the land concessions of the Wye Memorandum, points to an immediate need to reform the laws regulating the air waves in Israel. The government and the country's arms of justice also need to exercise a bit more common sense in deciding when and how to enforce the laws on the books. Treating people like outlaws can often itself be the cause of their acting like outlaws.

The charges filed against 13 broadcasters and managers of the Arutz 7 settlers' radio station included indictments for operating without a license, operation of wireless equipment without a license, and use of radio frequencies without authorization. Given the open manner in which Arutz 7's broadcasts were listened to throughout the country, on a strict reading of the law it is certainly possible to claim that the station managers did knowingly commit the actions attributed to them. But while upholding the law of the land is a cornerstone of proper government and administration, consideration should also be given to the fact that the managers of Arutz 7 have repeatedly claimed they would be perfectly willing to apply for licenses - if only the law enabled them to do so.

As Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein himself pointed out this week at the Knesset, the simple fact that the letter of the law enables the state to prosecute individuals on a vast number of possible violations does not necessarily mean that indictments should always be filed. As Rubinstein put it, one needs to implement common sense in such matters.

Arutz 7 has been operating for years in an unobstructed manner. Its broadcasts, giving voice to a not insignificant sector of the Israeli public which felt that its opinions were not heard frequently enough on government-controlled and monopolized radio, have often been considered a mirror image to Abie Nathan's Voice of Peace radio station, which similarly broadcast outside the territory of the state and gave alternative points of view a public stage. The Voice of Peace was never shut down by government action in all its years of broadcasts, until it went out of business. Similar tolerance of Arutz 7's operation was exhibited through many years of Likud, Labor, and unity governments. Indeed, politicians from virtually every corner of the Knesset were regularly interviewed in its news segments without giving the matter a second thought.

The fact that legal action is being taken now against the "settlers' radio station," given the context of the painful redeployment as part of the Wye agreement, is already arousing suspicions, justified or not, in the minds of many settlers. Arutz 7 played an important role in assisting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu win the last general election by firmly supporting his candidacy. The station, along with the settler movement, is going through a difficult period now as it is trying to adjust to the new reality of the Likud-led government it supported agreeing to withdrawals from parts of the Land of Israel.

A subtext of much of the settlers' complaints against the previous Labor-led government was the fact that they felt decisions were being taken affecting their very lives without consulting them, as if they were non-existent. The 170,000 settlers form a significant enough fraction of the population. While they cannot be given a veto over the decisions of the government or Knesset, in a democratic system their voice has as much legitimacy to be heard as any other. Indeed, the fact that the settlers' protest against the implementation of the Wye accord has been relatively muted is directly related to a sense that, in this government their positions are at least given a fair hearing, even if they are not necessarily accepted.

The shutting down of Arutz 7 is dangerous at this juncture, because it might be interpreted as an attempt by the government to disenfranchise the settler movement and drive it underground. And a movement which feels that it has been forced to go underground is far more dangerous than one given a chance to participate in public discourse.

The final irony is that fact that the Netanyahu government, through the commendable efforts of Communications Minister Limor Livnat, has been preparing the greatest revolution in the communications field in Israel's history. The Communications Ministry is taking numerous steps to reverse decades-old attitudes, which regarded the air waves as being a government monopoly, by working towards deregulation and an "open skies" policy. Yet this government has also failed to provide Arutz 7 a legal way to broadcast within the bounds of the law.

There should be no distinction in principle between freedom of the printed word and freedom of the spoken word in broadcasting. With minimal government supervision, broadcast frequencies should be made available to any group or individual willing to operate radio stations at their expense, even if only to prevent a situation in which certain segments of the public feel that their views are being kept out of monopolized government channels. Arutz 7 should be given the right to broadcast, under license, as any other group.

Prosecution of those violating the law is a vital tool of law enforcement. There are cases, however, in which common sense leads to the conclusion that the law is more in need of correction than the lawbreakers.

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